Health Anxiety and How to Cope
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with its continuously changing regulations and constant media coverage, continues to cause many of us to feel overwhelmed, stressed and anxious about our health.
Learning to cope with stress and anxiety related to health is crucial not only for those struggling with the negative mental health impacts of the pandemic, but also those who tend to have anxious symptoms triggered by health-related issues and unknowns.
What is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety, sometimes called illness anxiety disorder or hypochondria, is worrying excessively that you are or may become seriously ill. You may have no physical symptoms. You may also believe that normal body sensations are signs of severe illness, even though medical tests don’t reveal a serious medical condition. Health anxiety is similar to generalized anxiety, but it focuses specifically on illness or the possibility of illness.
This excessive anxiety—rather than the physical symptom itself—results in severe distress that can disrupt your life.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association, no longer includes hypochondriasis—also known as hypochondria—as a diagnosis. Instead, people previously diagnosed with hypochondriasis may be diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder.
Somatic symptom disorder, a disorder closely related to hypochondriasis, involves focusing on the disabling nature of physical symptoms, such as pain or dizziness. However, somatic symptom disorder comes without the worry that these symptoms represent a specific illness.
Signs and symptoms of health anxiety may include:
- Being preoccupied with having or getting a serious disease or health condition
- Worrying that minor symptoms or body sensations mean you have a serious illness
- Finding little or no reassurance from doctor visits or negative test results
- Worrying excessively about a specific medical condition because it runs in your family
- Having so much distress about possible illnesses that it’s hard for you to function
- Repeatedly checking your body for signs of illness or disease
- Frequently making medical appointments for reassurance or avoiding medical care for fear of being diagnosed with a serious illness
- Frequently searching the internet for causes of symptoms or possible illnesses
How to Cope with Health Anxiety
Fortunately, there are ways that you can cope with your health anxiety, including:
- Changing your focus of attention
- Practicing mindfulness
- Challenging your worrisome thoughts
- Working with a mental health professional
Change Your Focus of Attention
People with health anxiety often focus on a particular part or function of their body. The more they focus on a part of their body, the more they notice physical sensations which can then trigger worrying thoughts. This cycle is known as rumination.
If you feel yourself becoming too focused on a particular worry, it’s important to redirect your attention to something else. One of the best ways to do this is to turn your focus to an activity, such as:
- Tidying a room
- Doing a crossword puzzle
- Painting or drawing
- Going for a walk
Regardless of the activity, the goal is to be present and pay full attention to what you are doing. By putting our complete attention into a task, we are able to pull our mind away from our worrisome thoughts.
In instances where you find yourself ruminating but cannot physically do an activity, like when you’re lying in bed trying to sleep for example, try practicing mindfulness exercises.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to our thoughts, our surroundings and our actions in a purposeful way. While the practice is rooted in meditation, it has become increasingly useful in therapy.
There are many exercises you can try. Here are just a few:
- Mindfulness 5-4-3-2-1 Exercise: Look around your current surroundings and identify:
- Five things you can see
- Four things you can touch
- Three things you can hear
- Two things you can smell
- One thing you can taste
While simple, this exercise can help pull your focus away from ruminating thoughts and help ground you in your physical, present space.
- Listen to Music: This might seem like a simple exercise, but the key is to listen mindfully. While listening, try not to go right into “autopilot” and instead actively listen to the music. Focus on lyrics or try to identify individual instruments, visualizing the sounds or words in your mind.
- Practice Guided Meditations: Guided meditations take us through a process of letting go of our thoughts and relaxing our bodies. If you’re struggling with health anxiety, calming your body and mind through meditation may help.
There are a number of options for guided meditations. You can often find a large number of free options on sites like YouTube or on apps like Calm and Headspace. Find what works best for you, and try to regularly practice meditation for at least 5-10 minutes once a day.
Challenge Your Worrying Thoughts
Thoughts are not necessarily facts. However, when we ruminate, we begin to believe our thoughts reflect reality. Try to identify and challenge negative thoughts. Once a thought like, “There’s something wrong with my heart,” has been identified, you can challenge and reframe it.
For example, try instead thinking, “I’m only telling myself that there is something wrong with my heart.” This process of identifying and challenging takes practice. It helps to work closely with a licensed therapist or psychiatrist to develop coping techniques.
Finding Treatment for Health Anxiety
Like other anxiety disorders, health anxiety can become debilitating. When your health worries begin to interfere with your life, it’s time to seek medical advice from a mental health professional. Through behavioral therapy and many other treatment options, you can get better.
If you or a family member is struggling with health anxiety or any mental illness, reach out to our team today for additional information. We’re here to help you on your path to recovery.